The Weeks that Were
The Repairer of Reputations: Blue-Bird Weather by Robert Chambers

Underground Reading: Playing Games with William Sleator, H.G. Wells and Heather Killough-Walden

On its most commercial level, game fiction panders to the fantasy/sf reader's own interests. For the author, the use of a game provides a regimented narrative structure with built-in conflict. And for the reader, it provides another level of empathetic escapism. A world which the-protagonist-me masters swordplay to save the universe is (sadly) far-fetched. One in which the-protagonist-me beats DOOM to save the universe? Still far-fetched, but it is an easier jump to get into the hero's bootsAuthors from Orson Scott Card to Piers Anthony to Iain Banks have all used the device to great success. Here are three others...

Interstellar PigWilliam Sleator's Interstellar Pig (1984) is a book I'd encountered as a young adult. I'd forgotten it (blocked it?) entirely until Bex mentioned it a few weeks ago. And then, when she realized I hadn't read it for decades, she thrust it into my hands and stood over me until I finished. "Encountered" and "blocked it" are deliberately pejorative words. This supposed children's book is exactly the sort of thing that breaks fragile young minds. Not because it is bad - more the reverse: Sleator's hallucinogenic science fiction is way too well-written.

Barney is a lonely, slightly-geeky 16 year old with parents that "just don't understand" (in fairness to Mr. Sleator's characterization, he does a great job creating the distant/loyal Charlie Brown style parental unit). His miserable summer is enlivened when three very peculiar strangers move next door and entice him into playing their favorite board game.

The game is, of course, the titular "Interstellar Pig". Each player assumes the role of an alien - the representative of their entire species. The aliens quest around the universe in search of the "Piggy", an artifact of unknown origin or value. When the timer goes off, the alien holding the Piggy is spared. All the other species - and their homeworlds - are extinguished. 

As you can probably predict, the game and Barney's reality become cataclysmically intermingled. Barney is pursued by alien lifeforms while desperately trying to save Earth. What should be a fairly goofy YA scenario is turned into very real horror by Mr. Sleaton's extremely evocative prose. And, of course, the enticing descriptions of the actual game - guaranteed to trigger the imagination of any geekishly-inclined reader.

Interestingly enough, it looks like a dedicated fan actually created a (slightly less apocalyptic) version of the game in 2002, the same year that Mr. Sleaton released a belated sequel. The complete rules are available online. However worthy their effort, it falls slightly short of the breathtaking game described in the book. The manual is enormous, the game board is dynamic (and interactive) and, of course, if you lose, your planet blows up. (Almost a decade later, at least two of those features could be safely replicated on an iPad.) 

The GameHeather Killough-Walden's The Game (2010) is probably the most traditional narrative of the three. A young woman, Victoria Red, leads her team of immortal super-soldiers in an endless series of battles against her enemies. The most prominent is Victor Black, who has been playing (and winning) "The Game" since time immemorial. "The Game" itself is a series of endless battles, punctuated by genial rest periods in which all the soldiers shrug off their enmity and treat themselves to the luxuries of their science-fictional accommodation. The combination of battle and decadence keeps the players entertained (and distracted), and it is the rare player that pauses to question the "why" of their existence.

Fortunately for the reader, Victor and Victoria are both rare players. The hyper-masculine Victor realizes that his "good girl" counterpart might be just what he needs to break free of the Game forever. And if he's also drawn to her heart-breaking good looks, well, he's only a man. And a smouldering, dark-haired, green-eyed, Scottish-accented man at that (with chiseled features). 

The Game is one of Ms. Killough-Walden's many self-published genre books. She's one of that new breed of hyper-prolific, straight-to-Amazon bestsellers (and is now published by a print publisher, Headline, as well). The Game isn't "my thing" - a bit of a reviewing cop-out - but it is easy to see why Ms. Killough-Walden is so popular. The world has a soft-focus, daydream-like quality that fits well with the atmosphere of palpable tension (sexual and otherwise). The characters are all Cinemax-style archetypes, but the story is fast-moving. The denouement (8 pages of lavishly described sex) is obvious, but the climax isn't - the true nature of the Game and how Victor/Victoria break out of it is genuinely surprising.

Little WarsBased on Little Wars (1913), I'm not the only person to ever revisit my childhood. In this case, it is the inimitable H.G. Wells. Little Wars is - of all things - one of the first tabletop miniature wargames, created by Mr. Wells and a couple of his bored friends. The gentlemen began by playing with some toy cannon left behind by the kids. Then, after an hour of lazily plinking at soldiers, their latent instinct for systemisation kicked in and they started creating the rules. 

There's normally nothing particularly interesting about reading a gamebook, but in this case, Mr. Wells is completely transparent about the creation process. What results is the fairly joyous story of a middle-aged Victorian paragon crawling around in his garden with a bunch of toy soldiers purloined from his sons' playroom. Furthermore, the discussion of how he added more and more layers of complexity into the game makes for oddly fascinating reading. Who knew debates about measuring supply lines could be so fun?

Eventually, however, the details swamp the narrative. Mr. Wells goes into great depth with a play-by-play demonstration of one of his battles. Although the photographs are entertaining, as any gamer will tell you, there's only so much you enjoy someone else's playground war stories.

Although weirdly enjoyable as a book (in that, "something for reading"), I'm not sure I can weigh on whether or not the game itself seems particularly fun. Or whether or not it can even be played (although these people have tried). There are weird gaps in the rules that mostly stem from the core materials (the cannons, especially) being so dated. And, in a similar vein, Mr. Wells' casual (and frequently-repeated) dismissal of female players places Little Wars as an artifact of a bygone era.